Skip to main content

The lessons of 'Casablanca' still apply, as time goes by

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
updated 8:24 PM EDT, Sat July 7, 2012
This year marks the 70th anniversary of "Casablanca," the 1942 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and directed by Michael Curtiz. In this still from the film, a plane flies over the upscale piano bar 'Rick's Cafe Americain.' This year marks the 70th anniversary of "Casablanca," the 1942 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and directed by Michael Curtiz. In this still from the film, a plane flies over the upscale piano bar 'Rick's Cafe Americain.'
HIDE CAPTION
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicolaus Mills: "Casablanca" turns 70; film had backstory, resonance that mirrored reality
  • He says Operation Torch had just resulted in Allies' capture of Casablanca; gave film currency
  • He says Bogart character had version of patriotism that was heroic, accepted ambiguity
  • Mills: Bogart's cool may no longer resonate, but Rick's complexity does

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

(CNN) -- This year marks the 70th anniversary of "Casablanca," and although we are a long way from 1942, watching the film's romantic leads, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, sacrifice their wartime love still touches us.

The backstory on "Casablanca" is a good one, offering complex lessons in patriotism even today.

Few films have benefited as much from the real-world geopolitics surrounding them as "Casablanca," which opened on Thanksgiving 1942, when the nation was well into World War II, at New York's Hollywood Theater. Just 18 days earlier in Operation Torch, the Allies had invaded North Africa with a force of 65,000; among the cities they quickly captured was Casablanca.

A film that had finished production on August 3 suddenly became inseparable from actual events, as Jack Warner, whose studio produced "Casablanca," acknowledged in a November 10 memo, observing that the "entire industry envies us with picture having title 'Casablanca' ready to release, and feel we should take advantage of this great scoop."

(Editor's note: Warner Bros., like CNN, is a subsidiary of Time Warner).

"Casablanca" was helped even further by the politics surrounding Operation Torch, which at its outset involved getting French Vichy forces in North Africa to accept a ceasefire through a deal with Adm. Jean-Francois Darlan, who had collaborated with the Nazis after the defeat of the French army in 1940. The intrigue of "Casablanca" thus had its real-life counterpart in intrigue Americans had read about in their papers.

"Casablanca" reminded Americans of how completely their thinking had changed in the months since Pearl Harbor. Prewar America had much to apologize for in its international affairs. In 1939 the United States government failed to aid the Jewish passengers on the German ocean liner St. Louis when they were denied entry into Cuba and forced to return to Europe, and two years later the country was still not anxious to face facts about the wars raging in Europe and Asia.

Nicolaus Mills
Nicolaus Mills

In August 1941 the House of Representatives only reluctantly voted to renew the peacetime draft, passing it by a single vote, 203-202.

Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine is the embodiment of an America that has finally grasped the threat of fascism. On the surface, Rick is little more than the owner of a café in French Morocco, who insists, "I'm the only cause I'm interested in." But as his personal history emerges, Rick turns out to be anything but the cynic he pretends to be.

Before arriving in Casablanca, Rick fought on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War and ran guns for Ethiopia in its fight against Mussolini. At his café he has made a point of hiring European refugees. He has a Dutch pastry chef, a German refugee headwaiter, and a bartender from the Soviet Union. When a young Bulgarian woman asks for his help in getting her and her husband to America, Rick comes to their rescue by allowing them to win the money they need for papers at his gambling table.

The turning point in "Casablanca" occurs when Rick's former lover, Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, shows up at his café with the Czech resistance leader, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), her husband. Rick faces a dilemma. He still loves Ilsa, who acknowledges that she also loves him, but if he wants to help Laszlo escape from the Nazis, he cannot resume his relationship with Ilsa, who is Laszlo's main support.

Rick's solution to his dilemma comes when he tells Ilsa that she should stay with Laszlo, then supplies the two of them with stolen letters of transit that will get them safely to Lisbon.

Rick's refusal to put his own needs before those of Laszlo -- and by extension the war effort -- reflects his priorities and his patriotism, but what makes Rick's sacrifice so powerful is that it is unaccompanied by chest pounding or sentimentality.

"I'm no good at being noble," he tells Ilsa, "but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

To help Ilsa and Laszlo escape, Rick must shoot the ranking German officer in Casablanca and reach an arrangement with the corrupt French chief of police. Neither decision bothers Rick, who at the end of "Casablanca" heads off to a free French garrison with the police chief while telling him, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

The remark is filled with irony and humor, but remains serious. It reflects Rick's refusal to let the ambiguity of his choices get in the way of his waging war to the best of his ability.

Today, "Casablanca" speaks to audiences very differently from how it did in 1942 or even when it was part of the Bogart revival that began in the late 1950s at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. "Casablanca's" call to arms and Bogart's cool no longer resonate as they once did. But what does resonate in our post-9/11 world is Rick's complexity. Rick is a loner who won't let his idealism get the better of his pragmatism. He will not give in to the Germans, who are the real power in Casablanca, but he refuses to do anything that needlessly exposes him to arrest. He walks a moral tightrope with understated brilliance.

These days it is easy to imagine Rick applauding America's decision to aid Libya's rebels, worrying about our ongoing war in Afghanistan, and wondering what we might do to get other countries to help us stop the bloodshed in Syria.

Given Rick's choice of friends, it is clear that he would not be overly fastidious about choosing allies -- if he believed their cooperation could save lives.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT